By Elijah McKenzie–
The time is 11:45 p.m.
A car pulls into the rear entrance of a massage parlor where the windows are tinted black. Street lights radiate a pale glow as the parlor’s “Open” sign is suddenly illuminated. A man steps out of the car and into the building, surveillance cameras tracking his every move. After answering a series of unusual questions regarding age and money, he’s finally allowed inside where he is beckoned into dark room furnished with nothing more than a bed.
While most of Louisville sleeps, the covert industry of human trafficking carries on, exploiting young women and girls for commercial sex work where they are trapped as modern-day slaves.
“We are a nice city with a low crime rate and we like to think that things this ugly don’t happen here,” said Robin Valenzuela, an anthropology graduate student at the University of Louisville and the current Human Trafficking Case Manager at Catholic Charities of Louisville. “We don’t really have a high crime rate when you look at the United States as a whole, so people just don’t suspect that this thing is occurring.”
According to the Department of Health and Human Services and the Office of Refugee Resettlement, human trafficking has become the fastest-growing criminal industry in the world where it’s estimated that 15000 people are trafficked into the United States every year, 43 percent of which are used for forced sexual exploitation.
Public knowledge on the issue may generally be low, but Cards 4 Freedom – a recognized student organization that seeks to raise awareness about the issue of human trafficking among students – has organized a number of events to highlight some red flags for the illgeal practice. In November, The Louisville Cardinal witnessed some of these signs first-hand, on Cards 4 Freedom’s guided car tour of buildings they suspect of housing trafficking operations.
“We have a group of people within our organization that go out and conduct what we refer to as ridealongs, where a group of people will bring a video camera and look for places that have been identified as high risk for sex trafficking,”said Valenzuela. “We certainly don’t know definitively that trafficking is happening in these places and we don’t mean to declare that without knowing, but we do like to know what is going on in our city and we have found things that raise red flags for us.”
Gabrielle Maxedon, a justice administration graduate at U of L who once worked as the vice president of Cards 4 Freedom, currently facilitates ridealongs for the RSO and has personally encountered some bizarre activity in these areas that suggests the possibility of sex trafficking.vtvt
“When we’ve visiting potential trafficking sites, we asked neighboring businesses about the area and they reported seeing mattresses being moved in, which – to us – means that some of these women live in the places they work until they’re rotated to a different location,” said Maxedon.
In Maxedon’s experience, venues that do harbor sex trafficking tend to coordinate with one another, rotating sex workers around different locations in the city to keep them confused and unaware of where they are.
“It’s pretty obvious if the windows of a massage parlor are blacked out,” said Maxedon. “Places do this so the women who perform the sex work are kept away from the outside world, unable to get help.”
Male students who have volunteered with Cards 4 Freedom also reported experiencing unusual activity at these high risk venues. In many instances, women are not allowed in.
For John Evanko, a senior civil engineering major at U of L and frequent participant in the Cards 4 Freedom ridealongs, this behavior is suspicious, especially since the beauty industry is typically targeted towards females, yet women are turned away as potential customers.
“At first, it wasn’t too difficult because [Maxedon] would do most of the talking,” said Evanko. “Then it got to the point where only … I could go in because some venues won’t even open the door for a female. I didn’t know how I was going to react to any of the situations going on inside. There’s a fine line because you want to find out as much information as possible without getting trapped inside.”
Sgt. Andre Bottoms of the Louisville-Metro Police Department leads a unit of officers charged with investigating trafficking in Louisville. In spite the numerous cases that have been investigated so far, Bottoms said there hasn’t been enough evidence to prosecute any particular location.
“I think for the state of Kentucky, we’re just starting to see trafficking cases,” said Bottoms. “For a long time, officers weren’t trained.”
Bottoms said that since officers have now started working with other task forces from around the state, they’re beginning to fine-tune their ability to effectively combat trafficking.
According to Bottoms, one of the biggest obstacles for the LMPD is the language barrier since the majority of trafficking victims are foreign. Many of the female victims may also feel reluctant to talk with police because of the high levels of law enforcement fraud in their home country.
“Police in the countries that they come from are corrupt,” said Bottoms. “They abuse them, use violence on them. So, they don’t have the same trust for police that people in the United States have.”
A human trafficking operation has been recently brought before the court systems, Bottoms said. It’s a trend that points to an increasing number of crackdowns on sex trafficking in Louisville. In addition, there have been reports of Asian massage parlors being shut down for providing other sexual services, such as prostitution.
According to Cards 4 Freedom, the distinction between prostitution and sex trafficking is contingent upon the amount of coercion or force used when facilitating sex work.
“It’s basically considered a woman’s ability to choose whether or not she would like to enter in to prostitution versus being compelled by force, fraud or coercion,” said Valenzuela, referring to the law enforcement’s definition of prostitution and sex trafficking. “In the eyes of the law, human trafficking is considered to be a type of victimization, where that person does not have a choice.”
Valenzuela, who currently serves on Louisville’s human trafficking task force, said that the key to dismantling sex work operations is to be informed about the issue and to notify the police if there are signs that may indicate trafficking or prostitution activity.
“There are a lot of very wonderful, not just LMPD, but also other law enforcement branches that are in the task force,” said Valenzuela. “With human trafficking being such a covert crime, we do have to look at the red flags and take them seriously.”
Baylee Pulliam contributed to this article.